Death begins at birth. From the moment of conception, we are on a journey to the grave. None of us knows the span of of our lives - some don't make it past the womb; others experience well over a century of history in the making. We are all dying, but do we say it would be better never to have existed? Few believe that (though sometimes others make that "choice" for them) and fewer still intentionally end their own lives. Why do we cling to life when know death will eventually overtake us? Why do we embrace life all the more as we deteriorate?
The cycle of birth, life, and death in our natural bodies parallels with our spiritual existence. When we are born again, what follows? Death, death to sin and death to self. And yet unlike our new birth, which happens instantaneously, death to self is a process. A series of deaths, if you will. On our way to eternal life, we die a thousand spiritual deaths. Though our sins are forgiven, our sinful nature continues to tempt us to live for ourselves rather than dying to ourselves and being conformed to the image of Christ, in whom we were created and have been redeemed.
These thousand deaths to self are usually little deaths. They are uncomfortable but bearable. Sometimes, though, after following Jesus for a long time, we slip into complacency, and we quench the Spirit rather than put to death certain persistent sins. And then it happens. The Dark Night of the Soul. When God, in his love and mercy, disciplines us so severely that we may even wish we were dead. He shows us the destructiveness of our sin and how it is killing His spirit in us. We have to die an excruciating death to self or else be enslaved by it and lose our lives.
Sometimes it is not our own sin. When we are married, we are one with our spouse, and when God is dealing with their sin, it feels like we are dying as well. It could literally be a dark night, the darkest we've ever experienced, brought on by the worst fight we've ever had with our spouse, in which the sin was being killed, but it went out kicking and screaming. The battle was not with flesh and blood, but in the spiritual realm. It felt like the end of everything had come and there was no hope, but actually it was just the opposite - it was a new beginning.
You rose from the ashes, scarred and weary, humbly clinging to the One you felt - for that dark night - had abandoned you. You were badly shaken, fearful, and desperate. Then you became empty and numb. The damage seemed irreparable, your house utterly ruined, your garden desolate...but something caught your eye - a tiny, green shoot that sprung up overnight. You had a glimmer of hope. That God had extinguished the old life, so that you could start a new and better life together. It would take lots of time and more struggle to heal from the fatal wounds, but this body, this one flesh made of husband and wife bound together in Christ, would eventually be stronger than the previous union, and the new house God was building would far surpass the old.
Your Dark Night of the Soul would give way to a bright and glorious morning. But you would need to be patient. And keep dying. Dying to self. Weeding out sin. Basking in the light of the Father. Drinking in the water of life of the Holy Spirit. Abiding in the vine that is the Son. Growing (with all the pain that entails) in the body of Christ, beginning with your own family.
The Dark Night of the Soul had another purpose, too. It brought you back to your first love. It woke you up to the truth that God is the only one who will not let you down. You may have felt abandoned, but He was with you. He wants you to depend on Him alone. To put all your hope in Him, not another human being. Only His love is perfect and His love is all you need. This is also why you must forgive.
We are unworthy, selfish recipients of His grace. He gives it unconditionally and so we must freely extend His grace. Receiving and giving grace is the most direct path to healing. This is assuming repentance and change are underway (be it ourselves or our spouse or both). That the death really happened on the Dark Night of the Soul and the new life together began - whether it be a literal night in which it all culminated or a more gradual coming into the light over time. If morning has broken, then the work of rebuilding trust must begin right now.
It may feel like there is a void where the sin used to be. You have to discover who you are as a couple without that thing. So it's not just the person "with the problem" (really, just that particular problem) who will feel loss and pain. It was enmeshed in your marriage and now there's a hole where it used to be. It feels kind of drafty and weird. We may thirst and hunger like we never have before. It won't always be this way - over time, love will fill it - but for now it is a way of keeping the death real (when we are tempted to forget or minimize it) and a vivid reminder to turn to Jesus to fill us. His love poured into each of us will trickle into the hole, eventually transforming it into a well, deepening our marriage as our souls are rejuvenated. Where sin once poisoned us, life giving water will flow.
Reading this article about a ninety-five year-old woman who was one of Hitler's food tasters, I was struck by the conclusion:
Now at the end of her life, she feels the need to purge the memories by talking about her story. "For decades, I tried to shake off those memories," she said. "But they always came back to haunt me at night."
The walking wounded among us are not just holocaust survivors. Now is the time to begin dealing (with the past) and healing. Not wallowing in it, but praying through it, and in some cases, getting counseling, maybe for a season...or seasons...and not just for yourself, but for those close to you, with whom you are most likely to perpetuate the cycle of pain, if you don't stop it in its tracks.
We are born broken from our inherited sinful nature, and then the broken people who raise us inflict more damage, but when we invite God into the pain of the past, he picks up the pieces and makes us into magnificent mosaics. Fragile but held together by the strength of his love and radiant with his beauty. We are still his image bearers, even with the marks of our brokenness. And he joins us in our scars, his pierced hands and feet reminding us of his limitless love for those who will receive it.
On this Good Friday, I realized something very good. God giving us the seasons - literal and liturgical - proves that he never gives up on us. We always get another chance, a new beginning, a "next time" to do it differently. Notice I didn't say "do it right." We may have to wait for it, but it won't seem like it since whatever time it is, we'll be starting one of those cycles over again - or be in the middle, perhaps floundering, or even just anticipating the end of a certain season, so that we can move on to the next one.
What I mean is this. The last time I blogged was the beginning of of Lent. I had thought that by giving up and receiving grace for certain things, like reading the Bible in a year, catching up on past projects, etc., I would be able to more fully enter into the liturgy of Lent - do my devotional readings, spend more time praying, concentrate on repentance, quieting myself before God, finishing "The Celebration of Discipline" which I had been reading (barely) since...well, this post. What I actually did was pretty much give up on all of it. It wasn't intentional, and therein lies the problem. Somehow I have the best intentions but I fail to be intentional. Paradoxes abound. So does grace. Thank God.
So I failed Lent. And it's even worse than that. I also totally stressed over all the stuff I was trying to let go of thinking about. That's probably connected to my lack of connecting with God during this time. And to be totally honest, I had also decided to give up gluten, but I quit after two weeks. It wasn't that I missed it so much. I just didn't know why I was doing it. It turned out not be a spiritual discipline. I think the only food that would qualify for that would be cheese. But I digress. It wasn't the fasting part that made me feel like a failure. It was the part where I missed Lent. Where I didn't even make myself go through the motions except for a few feeble attempts. But guess what? I have next year. Come Epiphany 2013, I hope to start preparing myself for Lent. Because I think that's part of my failure - not planning ahead. Which leads me to my next point.
The two biggest cycles of the church year have down time in front of each of them. With Advent, we've got scads of Ordinary Time, and with Lent, it's the same deal...or it's Epiphany, but not much going on then, especially for us Protestants who don't have all those feast and saint days to bother about - no offense to those that do - I think it's very cool, but I'm a latecomer to all things liturgical.
My main point, though, with this post, is to marvel at how God redeems our mortality, not only through the gift of grace that gives us eternal life, but also through the way he structures time on this earth. Winter, spring, summer and fall (yes, the James Taylor song is running through my head, too) provide a rhythm for life, as well as a context, or a backdrop, if you will, against which we can see our growth and our need for growth. The world around us changes, yet it stays the same. We can either be a hamster on the wheel or we can be the groundhog...er, like that guy in the movie Groundhog Day (all these pop culture references are dating me, I know) who wakes up in the same day every morning (and to Sonny & Cher singing "I got you, Babe"). When he finally sees it as an opportunity to change, he becomes a new person (and gets the girl, of course). But it took waking up in the same day umpteen times for him to finally realize he could live differently.
Spring will come again. So will Easter. So will tomorrow. His mercies are new every morning. Let's remember that when we're groping around for God in the dark of night...or just sitting there on the couch, eating popcorn and zoning out in front of the screen. He's right there with us, ready to take us as far as we'll go, whether it's now or next year or the year after...
Giving up my best intentions. Giving up my less than best efforts. Giving up legalism. Giving up perfectionism. Giving up my pride. Giving up myself.
...So what am I actually giving up?
My plan to read the Bible chronologically in one year, while also reading it liturgically. After plowing through Genesis and Job - man, was that ground rocky - I completely fell off the wagon around the beginning of this month. I never really did consistently do my readings for Epiphany either, but at least I could pick up with Lent, whereas with the one year plan, I couldn't (or wouldn't) skip Exodus and Deuteronomy to get where I was supposed to be with my reading. That left me no choice but to quit and try again next year...or so my perfectionistic all or nothing mentality almost convinced me...until it dawned on me that I could continue reading where I left off if I would surrender the idea of reading the whole Bible in a year. And if I removed the time constraint, I could even have a chance to study those difficult Old Testament passages that were part of the reason my motivation had waned. Moreover, it would leave space to weave in my church year readings instead of feeling like I had to choose between them. Giving up rigidity was gloriously liberating. I wasn't giving up - I was giving in. Giving in to the God whose plans always turn out better than mine.
Catching up on the Past. I haven't printed photos from the last 6 years. With each upload, my burden to get them sorted and printed grows heavier and more seemingly untenable. So I asked myself what is at the root of this? Guilt and fear. I feel bad that my children (ages 9,7,5) aren't able to see pictures of themselves when they were younger. I fear their memories will fade of special times because they haven't been visually reminded. I even fear my life being cutting short and not having properly documented everything. I finally asked myself, "Is it impossible for them to see these pictures if they aren't in book form?" Not at all. For some reason, I hadn't thought it could work for them to browse through iPhoto, even though they often would do that over my shoulder when it was on my screen. I guess I didn't think it was good enough. I had this picture in my mind of our family gathered around the couch, flipping through pages together, reminiscing. Anything less than that seemed like failure. Now I'm giving up that ideal, as well as the fear its rooted in and the guilt it grows...and giving in to grace. I'm trying to apply that to my other unfinished projects, especially organizational ones - the kids' artwork accumulated over the past five years , a decade (our whole marriage) of filing, and so on. I'm not giving up on dealing with it but I am giving up listening to the ticking clock, surrendering my fears of an unfinished life and guilt over failing to preserve our family's legacy in the "proper" way.
Homeschooling by the Book. Although I love The Well Trained Mind, it sets the bar quite high for providing a classical education. But it's home to me - it's where I started and where I feel safest (there's that fear again) and what feels right. At the same time, its rigorousness is beyond my capacity, so I feel inadequate since I never quite can implement all the reading and projects and subjects, which even the authors tell you not to attempt, but my perfectionism plugs its ears and creates a compulsion to complete every curriculum by the end of the school year. All of this pressure has caused me to overemphasize structure and to quicken our pace. This, of course, drains the joy out of learning, and doesn't give us the time to linger longer over what's most interesting or takes more time to master (for lack of a better word). So I'm loosening up and slowing down and stepping back to look at the big picture. Academics are only one of our reasons for homeschooling, so that shouldn't be steering our course. Once again I'm giving up...giving up the wheel and letting God take the driver's seat, even if that means leaving classical country for new educational lands, or commuting back and forth between them, rather than insisting we stay parked in one spot.
Obviously this isn't just for Lent, but it does seem the perfect (haha) season to start the process of giving up and giving into God's grace, beginning with these tangible areas of my life.
In the river of life, I feel like I'm barely keeping my head above water, as the current pulls me along - at the moment, it seems like I'm drowning - the weight of everything unfinished dragging me down - I can't stop to catch my breath, so I frolic in the mess, letting distractions make me farther behind, all the time panicking as I gulp water, sputtering it everywhere in emotional outbursts.
Will the dam hold long enough for me to get my footing, climb up the bank, and build an ark big enough to hold all that matters? Lord, give me the strength, the wisdom, the self-discipline, and the speed to catch up on the past while I live in the present and plan for the future. Rescue me from the flood and set my feet upon a rock. Then give me wings, so I can chase rainbows...
Why is that during the most serious part of the church service, I feel the most silly? Well, it came to an embarrassing crescendo last Sunday...
It started months ago with the big pieces of crackers. I didn't mean to grab the one the size of Texas, but there I was crunching away for what seemed like an eternity. The generous portions of matzo continued, and my husband and I started noticing that not only were they the size of large states, they were the shape of them also. So naturally we had to show to each other - "I got Florida." "Mine looks like Utah." "Giggle, giggle, quack" (okay, there were no duck voices - I just know way too many children's book titles). Sometimes we played it safe and had small half moons of gluten-free rice wafers.
Then there was the wine - ruby port actually - encircled by its non-alcoholic counterpart. Having only ever experienced Baptist flavored churches where all we got was Welch's grape juice, and only once a month at that, as soon as we joined a Presbyterian church last year, I knew I would always choose the real deal, just like Jesus drank at the last supper (don't let the teetotalers fool you). Probably because it's still new, it makes me a slightly giddy, like tee hee, I'm drinking *real* wine in church. Silly, I know, but I'm that girl.
My husband, who is funny ninety percent of the time, mentioned to me that he likes taking the communion cup in the exact center of the tray. So I began noticing whether it was there or not when we would get up to the front, and every so often, I would take it just for fun. We'd have a silent chuckle over that - or if he got it, he would give me those smiling eyes and nod of victory.
As if it weren't enough with all the whispers and stifled giggles between us, my mom and stepdad started sitting next to us during the service. They volunteer to prepare communion, so she has the inside scoop on details I would have been better off not knowing. For example, when I showed her the ginormous piece of cracker I ended up with one morning, she told me that it's really hard to break up the matzo. This is funny in itself, but moreso because we're Jewish by birth. She's also the one who told me that it's not kosher wine (I had thought it was Manischewitz) but port that they pour into the tiny plastic cups.
Well, one week ago today, the humorous energy that had been gradually intensifying reached critical mass, and the amusing details combusted into utterly uncontrollable hilarity. I went up to receive the elements, and as I always do, I made eye contact when the person holding the "bread" tray said "His body broken for you," but as I grasped the cracker, I realized I had two pieces. For a split second, I thought of putting one back, but they felt stuck together, and I had already touched them...and I couldn't hold up the line, so concealed my double portion and my amusement, took the cup and looked up for "his blood shed for you," and made my way back to my seat, grinning widely.
I couldn't help but show my husband and my mom the extra cracker, which they also found funny. My mom then mentioned that there are always lots of leftovers, so not to worry, and that my stepdad drinks the extra wine. So there I got this ridiculous visual of him guzzling these tiny glasses of port in the church kitchen, and I could feel the laughter welling up in me. I tried to suppress it but suddenly I noticed all these white crumbs on my black pants, which I battled to brush off of me. A few seconds later, I saw my mom doing the same thing - dusting her lap with her hands.
It was all just too much. My body began heaving and I had to bury my quivering face in my hands, my head shaking and tears beginning to escape the corners of my eyes (later I was to discover I had raccoon eyes from my smearing my mascara). My stomach suppressed the hysterics, but I faintly emitted a sound like sobbing, which is what I sheepishly wished people would think I was doing instead of laughing!
It took me the rest of the communion time to pull myself together, and only just barely. I wish I could say it was holy laughter, but on the surface at least, it sure seemed carnal. I had, week by week, let my mind wander into these trivial details - the literal aspect of the ritual - rather than staying focused on the symbolic significance of the Eucharist. Not that I hadn't tried, mind you, to shut out these distractions (and, in fact, they occur throughout the whole service), but I had not forced myself into submission. In a way, I see what happened as evidence of grace. Yes, I was embarrassed, but I also felt a sense of release and relief - both emotionally and in terms of not being able to project any sort of pious image. That's me, people, showing you that I don't have it all together, not even in the moment when I "should" be closest to the throne of God. Then again, who's to say that in his presence, in the fullest experience of the most important release of all - from sin to freedom - there wouldn't be uninhibited rejoicing? Tears and laughter are made of the same stuff, I've heard it said, or if I didn't, I'm saying it now.
Afterwards, a lovely woman (who happens to be the director of children's ministry) came up to me and said she just had to ask what made me crack up. I told her the whole story (well, not as detailed as this) and we couldn't help but laugh together. Apparently joy is contagious - I almost wish I had let it all out and that the whole room had burst into laughter, but that will probably have to wait until heaven..."therefore, let us keep the feast"...and our sense of humor.
I didn't realize how damaged I was until I started a family. My upbringing mingled with my sinful nature were what I brought into my marriage and motherhood. Thankfully God's grace had been at work all along, so that despite (and even because of) my frailties, I continued to be his image bearer in many ways - I was saved and kept by my Heavenly Father instead of wrecked by the abuse, brokenness, and dysfunction of my home(s). My innocence, purity, and character were evidence of the Lord's hand on my life, of Jesus dwelling in my heart, and the Holy Spirit directing my path. Still, there were wounds - from others and the ones I inflicted upon myself when I came of age - both of which he bore for me on the cross. They did not all come to light until this past decade, a season of uniting myself with another human being and our offspring.
In addition to struggling with my sinful, selfish self, there has been the challenge of living something new that I didn't see modeled. An only child of a divorced, remarried mother who worked full-time outside the home has not been trained to be a stay-at-home mother of three, let alone homeschool teacher. I'm breaking new ground, while mucking about in the dirt of the present and pulling weeds from my past. It has taken me ten years to learn and do things that suddenly seem obvious and basic. I feel like I'm so slow, but then I remember that I'm a pioneer - starting a family of my own is a journey, one that has been arduous and exhilarating at the same time, so it makes sense that I'm only now beginning to get settled.
Eleven years ago I began reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy and Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. That spring, my literary and spiritual appetites had been whetted by my time at the Mount Hermon Writer's Conference in the sanctuary of the Redwoods along the central California coast. God speaks truth through beauty and I had heard Him there, so I went searching for more in my favorite place to look - books. In the fall, however, he met me in an altogether different way. My heady reading fell to the wayside when I was led into the children's literature section at Border's on my first date with my husband, who read me aloud, "Oh, the Places You'll Go" by Dr. Seuss. What a prophetic moment that turned out to be. Instead of embarking on the path of disciplined grace, I was swept off my feet and carried away to the manic maze of marriage and motherhood, all but erasing from my memory banks the first four chapters of Celebration of Discipline and 200 pages of War and Peace. There was much celebrating and warring over the next decade, but not much peace or discipline (except of my own children).
Grace abounds even when we are not pursuing it fervently. That is how I have survived this induction into domestic life and now homeschooling. Lately,though, I have sensed that it's time to start moving from functioning by grace to gracefully functioning. Others farther ahead on the path have confirmed that there will be no reprieve during this season for me to enter a period spiritual retreat and renewal. If it's going to happen, it will be between meals, lessons, sorting out sibling squabbles, emails, exercise, TV shows, park days, bedtime reading...you get the picture. Thankfully, since they were young, I have (and this I see as another act of God's grace) trained my children (and they have cooperated with it) to transition from napping to a quiet time. So most afternoons, I have an approximate two hour block of time to be alone. As an introvert, that has kept me sane. It has also enabled our girls to read on their own while preschoolers (other contributing factors were literary genes and Baby Einstein, but when it comes right down to it, I say that God taught them to read).
So eleven years later, I find myself once again picking up Celebration of Discipline (War and Peace will have to wait), finally responding the Spirit's invitation to the path of disciplined grace, in hopes of it leading me deeper into the presence of God, of receiving more of his grace and overflowing it to others, but Foster articulates it more clearly:
"God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace. The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us.
The apostle Paul says, 'he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life (Galatians 6:8).' Paul's analogy is instructive. A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants, and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the grain. This is the way it is with the Spiritual Disciplines - they are a way of sowing to the Spirit. The Disciplines are God's way of getting us into the ground; they put us where he can work within us and transform us. By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done. They are God's means of grace. The inner righteousness we seek is not something that is poured on our heads. God has ordained the Disciplines of the spiritual life as the means by which we place ourselves where he can bless us.
In this regard it would be proper to speak of 'the path of discplined grace.' It is 'grace' because it is free; it is 'disciplined' because there is something for us to do."
Someone on the Well Trained Mind Forums (where I've been spending way too much time lately) posted a poll asking whether conservatives thought that people were basically good or bad - it generated a lot of responses. Here's what I said:
Don't have time to read through all the responses, but I think the question is basically flawed...as are people! :) But since you asked...
I believe we're born with an inherent selfishness that causes us to rebel, but at the same time, we were made perfect in the image of our Creator. So to be fully human is actually to be totally good, but we won't get there until God restores his creation when Jesus returns. Meanwhile, we can be born again, whereby we still live with our sinful nature, but it doesn't rule us once we are submitting ourselves to the Holy Spirit. So we still "do what we do not want to do" (the apostle Paul's words) but our response to God's grace (unmerited favor from an unobligated giver) is a desire to love him and thus obey him, in thankfulness and knowing that his ways are the best.
There's also common grace, which is what keeps us all from destroying each other and the planet. So even those that reject the gospel, which is God's mercy and grace (Jesus atoning for our sins and reconciling us to the Father by becoming the perfect sacrifice to satisfy God's perfect nature which demands justice for wrongdoing, no matter how seemingly trivial to us), still bear the image of their creator and have his truths written on their hearts, so they are capable and inclined toward doing good more than evil, but it is a slippery slope without Christ, whereby anyone is able to be dragged down to the depths of their sinful nature, especially with their vulnerability to the deception presented by the devil whom they usually don't believe in, and therefore oblivious to his schemes (see The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis).
Btw, I don't consider myself conservative or liberal - it all depends on the individual issue. I'm solidly pro-life (no abortion or CP). I voted for Ron Paul and would again, though I don't agree with all his views - it's more his character that made me vote for him.
I wrote the following in my prayer journal this summer and I was reminded of it this past week when we attended homeschool day at the Cal Academy of Science, where we watched Journey to the Stars (links to the 27 minute video) in the planetarium. "Watched" is an understatement; experienced is more like it. My 5 yr-old captured it best "I feel like I went on a rocket ship through space!"
Father, are you still creating? You rested on the seventh day, not because you needed to, but because it was an example for us, whom you made in your image and likeness, and so we, too, are compelled to create. With you, Lord, a thousand years is like a day, so does a day, or a millenium or more go by without you creating? Is our universe one of many? Or is every "new" thing here a work of your creativity? From the sun setting to a birth of a child?
It seems like you finished creation, and I know you will one day restore it to its original glory...in fact, even more glorious...but what about now? You designed this world so perfectly that even in its fallen state, so many things are regenerated, and it seems to happen through the scientific processes you put in motion, so that it appears you are no longer creating in this universe, but I wonder if it just appears that way to us because we are constrained by our five senses - that we cannot perceive your transcendent "hand" maintaining and creating.
Or have you willfully confined your creativity in our rebellious world to the spiritual realm? And so there is decay outwardly, but inwardly, you create life. Your common grace sustains your creation and your redemptive grace makes souls into new beings, a work that is not finished until you restore all of your creation.
You don't operate in time as we do - you always were and always will be - so is everything really happening simultaneously in the spiritual realm? I am groaning with your creation, longing for everything to be made right and to see you make all things new. Amen.
You are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you." ~Nehemiah 9:6 (this whole chapter I read today blew me away).